PCDForum Column #25,    Release date December 5, 1991

by Janet Hunt

Behind the current debate on environment and development lies a basic question. What kind of development? While the world's governments seem studiously committed to not asking, I believe that responsible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with environmental and social issues must raise this question publicly and call for honest debate. Indeed growing numbers of NGOs are doing just this. Why?

Most of the world's governments and international agencies are currently committed to an export-led, high consumption, industrial growth model of development as the key to universal prosperity. This commitment, however, neglects important historical and contemporary realities.

The European industrial revolution was built on colonialism and the access it provided to cheap raw materials imported from distant empires. The industrialization of the "New World" of North America was built on a similar colonization of its Western frontier at the expense of existing native populations. Many persons benefited, but their gain was at the expense of those who were deprived of their own resources.

We now see a similar pattern in Asia where those countries touted as the region's industrialization success stories are actively expropriating the resources of their poorer neighbors. For example, we see Thai logging companies cutting the forests of Laos and Cambodia, while Malaysian and Korean companies do the same in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Similarly, Taiwanese fishing vessels mine the fisheries of the Pacific Ocean with their "Wall of Death" drift nets.

Furthermore, in a world of falling trade barriers and mobile capital, enterprises are encouraged to locate where labor is cheap and labor laws repressive. These same locations are also likely offer lax or poorly monitored environmental regulations, allowing for various forms of environmental exploitation.

Similar consequences are felt in nearly every Asian country, whether industrialized or industrializing--a growing gap between rich and poor, social disruption, and escalating environmental costs. In Australia, one of Asia's most advanced industrial countries, the top ten percent of our population now controls 55 percent of Australia's personal wealth, while the bottom half owns less than 2 percent. We are also experiencing a feminization of poverty. Australia's aboriginal people live in chronic poor health, often in conditions worse than found in many parts of the Third World. Ten percent of our labor force is unemployed and many others have left the labor force in discouragement. Huge numbers of young people are homeless, drug abuse is widespread, and youth suicide rates are alarmingly high.

Thailand, widely praised for achieving Asia's highest economic growth rates in the late 1980s, is experiencing a similar widening gap between rich and poor as firms lay off permanent full-time workers and replace them with temporary or contract employees to reduce labor costs and trade union power. Bangkok's children suffer from high levels of lead and other toxics accumulated in their bodies. A recent chemical explosion in a Bangkok slum neighborhood killed or caused permanent severe damage to the health of some 5,000 persons. Similarly we are told that all the rivers of Manila are biologically dead, and much of Korea's water is unsafe to drink.

It seems unlikely that the path to sustainable development will be mapped in the meetings of the G-7 or the board rooms of the World Bank or the IMF, where a commitment to the myths of trade and industrial prosperity continue to flourish. More relevant contributions are being made by ordinary people around the world who are experimenting with environmentally friendly ways of living and relating. These pioneers of a truly new world order are pointing out the irony, given our years of advice to the poor, that it is we, the wealthy of the industrial world, who must become more self-reliant--reducing our dependence on the natural and financial resources of the non-industrial world and forging for ourselves a non-exploitative way of life. To do so we must be more efficient in our industry and more frugal in our lifestyles.

Self-reliance does not mean isolation. The rest of the world has much to learn from our mistakes, just as we have much to learn from the traditional non-materialistic, non-individualistic values of Asian and other non-industrial cultures. NGOs have a particularly central role in building people-to-people partnerships across cultures through which we can work together to create a more economically, ecologically, and socio-culturally balanced development model.


Janet Hunt is director of campaigns and education, Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA, GPO, Box 1562, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia; and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on her paper "Development and Environment in Industrialising Asia."

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